The end of life is a powerful, emotionally wrenching, and often profoundly spiritual time. I have been talking with people who are dying and with their families (I define family as all those who are emotionally close to the person who is dying. They might be related by blood, marriage, love, or friendship. Family members can be caregivers, but not all caregivers are family) for more than twenty years as both a social worker and a volunteer, and I have seen how often people's night time dreams help them find peace at the end of life. When I first began asking, "How are your dreams these days?," I was surprised at how many people were pleased and grateful to be talking about something other than their illness. Some responded by entertaining me with bits of dream adventures while others launched into discussions about religion and science. Sometimes people invited me into the very heart of their lives. What I learned from all of them eventually led me to write Dreams at the Threshold: Guidance, Comfort, and Healing at the End of Life, a book that explores the powerful support dreams offer the dying and their loved ones.
Dreams help the dying and their families focus on what matters most for them. Dreams help people open the important but difficult conversations they need to have with each other. Dreams become extraordinary when they help people who are dying imagine where they are going or reveal glimpses of a possible afterlife. Grief dreams give solace to the bereaved, so much so that some people learn how to influence their dreams, and eventually build a trusting relationship with them. More than anything, dreams help people love each other as deeply and honestly as they can. Below are five ways that dreams help at the end of life.
- Dreams Focus on What Matters
Have you ever reached the end of a day and wondered what you did with your time? Daily life can get so filled with the basic tasks of daily living (work, groceries, laundry, car repair, feed the kids, get the kids to feed the parrot) that we forget to pay attention to what matters to our soul. At the end of life these daily tasks multiply. People need help with basic tasks such as bathing, dressing, or walking across the room. All of this extra work, however, is set against the backdrop of a frightening and limited future.
When time becomes short, many people turn their attention back to their heart's longing, often with help from their dreams. A man who is estranged from his children dreams of asking them or their forgiveness and when he wakes he knows it is time to call them. A woman who farmed all her adult life dreams of digging her hands into the soil and wakes knowing she needs to feel the earth in her hands one last time. A woman dreams she is a ballet dancer again, spinning on point for her family, and decides to leave her grandchildren a record of all the decisions—her personal turning points, she explains with a smile—that formed who she is. (Please note that the above examples are composites of many different people I've met over twenty years and do not describe any individual person).
These are dreams of the soul, helping to point the dreamers straight into the heart of whatever made this life uniquely theirs. Dreams can help people focus on what has been most important to them.
- Dreams Open Important Conversations
In all of the examples above, the dreamers felt inspired to talk with their families about what they needed most for their life. The man who dreamed of forgiveness expressed his love and regret for the first time in years. The retired farmer asked for help getting to a nearby patch of earth. The former ballet dancer passed along to her family the lessons she had learned over a lifetime. Some people use their dreams to open the most delicate conversations of how they wanted to be remembered, or what they would like for their funeral.
An elderly woman who was hospitalized with a severe illness listened as her children encouraged her to try a new treatment. (The full story can be found in Dreams At the Threshold.) Then she told them all she had a dream in which her late husband came and told her he was waiting for her. After telling this dream she was then able to say out loud that she was ready to die, something that might have shocked them if she hadn't first described her husband's dream visit. Her dream helped relieve her children of the natural guilt they felt at not being able to make her well again, and reassured them that she knew she would be all right. She died in peace with them at her bedside a few days later.
Dreams encourage people to listen to their hearts' longing, and sometimes—sometimes—help people show their unguarded hearts to those they love. For many family members these conversations remain treasured memories for the rest of their lives.
- Dreams Prepare the Dying for a Journey
As death approaches, many people dream more often of traveling or moving. In their dreams they pack their clothes in suitcases and box up their belongings. They close up their stores and lock the doors behind them. They buy tickets for boats, buses, and airplanes, and consult maps to destinations they can't quite remember the next morning. Some will complain to family of waiting in line or struggling with heavy boxes, and fret about whether they will miss their connections.
In these dreams death no longer feels like the cessation of life, but more like a transition to something new. As dreamers engage in the familiar tasks of travel, they remember what it feels like to anticipate a trip. The excitement of a new adventure can linger for several days after such a dream, and dreamers and families alike draw comfort from it.
These dreams show a future in which the dreamers are still themselves after they have separated from their loved ones. The dreams assume the dreamer is not heading into an abyss of nothingness but instead is moving to a new place, albeit an unfamiliar one. The dream gives people new courage to say goodbye by giving a glimpse of what is coming next, and the dreamers turn their eyes to a horizon that now holds more promise than dread.
- Dreams Bring the Dying Loving Visitors
As people draw closer to death they are sometimes visited in their dreams by loved ones who have long since died. Occasionally people dream about religious figures coming to greet them, but much more often they are visited by people who have loved them: parents, grandparents, children, brothers, and sisters. Whatever fears or hurts the visitors might have had when they were living are now long forgotten, and they show the dreamer only a radiant, constant love.
Research shows most visitations take place in vivid dreams, but sometimes the dying person is awake, making the visitation less like a dream and more like a vision. The visitor might sit on the bed or lean against the window or linger by the door, invisible to all but the dying person. They bring comfort, love, and companionship at a time when people feel most alone, and they all make the same promise.
Visitation visitors, whether in the dream or in a waking vision, promise they have come to help guide the dying over the threshold of death. They offer no hints about from where they've come or what they've been doing, but they show themselves as ready to guide their loved one on to whatever is next beyond the moment of death. Sometimes the one who is dying is ready to go but the visitor says not yet. Sometimes the dying person is not ready but the visitor gently says now, and the person dies.
The emotional impact of visitation dreams can be profound. The dying feel more accepting of death and more willing to move forward, sure now that existence continues beyond life. Families feel relieved and grateful when they see their loved ones smile and reach out for someone they themselves can't see. For some these visits feel like a glimpse into the world beyond this one, and they are filled with hope.
- Dreams Connect Mourners with Those They Love
There are many ways grief dreams help those in mourning live with grief. Families and caregivers, friends, and distant relatives may all have grief dreams as they come to grips with a painful new reality. Some dreams play over the final moments of the loved one's life, leaving dreamers with a raw pain when they awaken. Some bring images that reflect the enormity of the loss—like the wind blowing through an empty house—and dreamers wake with a better understanding of their emotions.
But the grief dreams most people treasure, even long for, are the ones in which the person who died returns and reassures the dreamer that they are physically and emotionally whole again, safe, and still loving them from afar. Some of these grief dreams are so vivid that the dreamers are sure they have seen their loved one again. They wake knowing their loved one has come back from the other side miraculously unscathed, bringing messages of love, comfort, and reassurance. The dreams give mourners another chance to say what they most need to say: goodbye, I love you, please forgive me, I forgive you, I will remember you. Just one grief dream of a loved one looking happy and healthy again can soften the sharpest edges of grief.
Grief dreams can be so comforting that some people seek out help to learn how to find their loved one in a dream. I have met several dream workers who teach their clients how to help their dreams bring a visit from their deceased loved ones.
How You Can Help Your Dreams
Dream workers know that dreams often reflect what we do and experience during the day. Our dreaming minds and waking minds are engaged in a conversation every day, whether or not we are aware of it. When we are under stress we might dream of falling or being chased, and when we succeed we sometimes dream of celebrations or flying.
By becoming more aware of this conversation, you can have more of a say in what your dreams bring you. You won't ever be able to control your dreams, but you can influence what you dream about. Here are three steps you can take now to build a stronger relationship with your dreams.
- The first step is to remember the conversation you are already having with your dreams. Start by telling yourself just before you go to sleep that you want to remember your dreams. Your dreaming mind will hear that simple statement as an invitation to retain the images as you wake up. Some people put a notebook and pen by their bed or download a dream application, and then record the dreams they remember.
- The second step is to think about the dreams you remember. Play the dream over in your head when you first wake up. Even if you don't write anything down, thinking about the dream for just a few minutes will engage your conscious mind with your dreaming mind. Then ask yourself two questions: What did you feel in the dream? And what does the dream remind you of? With these two questions you are building a bridge between your waking life and your dreaming mind. You are helping your dream learn what is most important to you, and what kind of dreams you will remember in the future.
- Finally, trust that you can make your own sense of your dreams in whatever way works for you. Trust that your dream is a part of you and that it reflects what you want from your life. If you want to explore a dream further, find a dream dictionary online or in any bookstore or library. If your dream makes absolutely no sense, let it go and look for the next one. Another dream will arrive soon enough, whether or not you understand this one. Start with trying to understand some dreams sometimes, and soon you will find more of your dreams making more sense.
Then let the dream go. Building a relationship with your dreams means trusting not just the dream, but also your own readiness to think about them. If you are like me, your dreams have already shown they are sturdy enough to withstand being ignored. As you remember your dreams you will see they are strong enough to engage your wildest fears and brightest hopes, and they are polite enough to fade away when you turn your attention to something else. You will find your dreams are, in fact, you—they are the product of your dreaming mind as much as your emotions are part of your waking mind. You have the ultimate say in how many dreams you will remember and what you will do with them. And if you decide not to remember your dreams right now, be assured they will return when you look for them again.
Most of us in Western culture have been taught that dreams are nothing more than our brains spluttering out nonsense. At the end of life, however, dreams often reveal themselves as a strong, supportive ally. They can be funny, bold, irrational, frightening, reassuring, and insightful. They frequently offer hope and comfort when we are feeling vulnerable and afraid. Best of all, they can remind us of our emotional strengths, our spiritual beliefs, and our most pressing life goals. They help us deepen our emotional bonds with the people we love and they gently lead us back, over and over, to the wonder of our hearts.